This weekend the country will celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There will be events of all sorts commemorating the late civil rights leader. The anniversary of his birthday is actually, Jan. 15, but the legal holiday will be celebrated on Monday, Jan. 17.

The celebrations will take many forms. There will be parades, rallies, workshops, ecumenical services and more. We will hear from civil rights leaders, clergy, community leaders and, of course, politicians. Many will quote Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Others will quote some of Dr’ King’s other writings.

Speakers will reflect on the progress we have made on civil rights. Others will point out that we still have work to do. Both will be right.

Politicians of all political persuasions will use the occasion to emphasize their own personal agenda. Sometimes these words will match the speaker’s actions, while other times we may notice a disconnect between words and actions. Such is the nature of the American political system. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to make words and actions be congruous and hold politicians accountable when they aren’t. We should do this with respect to all issues.

We should listen carefully to a politician’s words. We will hear references to the bridge in Selma and how it acted as a catalyst for real change, which it did. Many who talk about it will be working to continue that fight, while others will go back to Washington or Atlanta and fight against voting rights.

The hypocrisy of touting Dr. King’s work on Monday and on Tuesday supporting legislation that makes it harder to vote should not be overlooked. It is not good enough to honor Dr. King’s legacy one day a year and spend the other 364 trying to undo the progress our country has made in the years since his death. We must hold politicians accountable for what they say and call them out on it when words and deeds don’t match.

The United States has many holidays commemorating important people and events in our history. Over time the meaning of these holidays can get lost or overlooked.

We have moved many of them from the actual date to the nearest Monday, for convenience. Important days like Memorial Day or Independence Day are celebrated with big sales at department stores. There are, of course traditional celebrations too, but many people think of most of our holidays as just another day off from work or school, or a chance to get a bargain.

This is starting to happen to the King holiday as well. We must fight the urge to see it merely in these terms. We must continue to use it as a day to measure how far we have come and how far we still have to go in our pursuit of Dr. King’s dream.

We need look no further than here in Rome to see the dichotomy of where we are.

Just this week the Rome City Commission has chosen its first African American woman mayor. The City Commission is racially diverse, reflecting the diversity of our city. Yet simultaneously the state Legislature is working hard to continue their efforts to pass legislation to make it harder for Georgians to exercise their right to vote. In Washington, voting rights legislation is the subject of political wrangling.

The battle over voting laws is sure to be a major issue in this year’s election cycle, and probably will be so for years to come.

So, as we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, let’s try to remember why we are celebrating it. Let’s do that the other 364 days of the year as well. We have a great deal to celebrate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more progress that needs to be made to make the dream a reality.

Vinny Olsziewski has a 40-year career as a disability rights advocate, working with local, state and national organizations and encouraging participation by people with disabilities in the political process.


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